Indirect Leadership in the Early Church

Fra Angelico painting titled St Peter Preaching in the Presence of St Mark

Talking about indirect leadership often raises questions about the structure of the early church. Doesn’t the New Testament establish leaders to govern the church? Didn’t Paul appoint elders in the churches (Acts 14:23)? Didn’t he use the word “overseers” to describe these leaders (a word that has to do with directing people)?

Yes. The New Testament establishes a pattern of leadership for the church. “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11, ESV). Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders”…”in every church” (Acts 14:23). But this does not tell us HOW these men carried out their leadership. Often what happens is that we read our preferred leadership style into the New Testament text.

Jesus told his disciples that leadership in his kingdom would be different. They were not to embrace the authoritarian practices common in the ancient world.

“You know the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28, NLT).

The early Christians did not eliminate authority. They exercised that authority in a way that was very different from the prevailing leadership style: not through command-and-control, but through service and the practice of indirect leadership.

They Saw Jesus as Present

How were these first-century leaders able to do this? Knowing the tremendous importance of their work and their responsibility before God, how could they allow such freedom in the churches? The answer relates to their perception of the presence of Jesus.

Early Christian leaders believed Jesus was WITH them. He was in their presence through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV). The leaders of the New Testament church did not depend on positional authority, but rather on the influence of Christ himself to motivate and move believers into action. They exercised their authority by building a capacity-developing environment, rather than by exercising coercive authority. They trusted Christ to shape, mold, and develop his people (Rom 14:4).

This was not just for the ancient church. Today, as a leader who is also a Christian, you, too, can count on the promise that Jesus made. He will be with you as you commit your leadership to his honor and glory. As a follower of Christ, you can count on His presence. He promised to be with you even to the ends of the earth. The awareness of His presence enables you to let go of direct control. It gives you confidence in the oversight of Christ when you invite him into your sphere of leadership.

The Church Deviated from the Path of Indirect Influence

It is astounding how quickly the church distanced itself from its early confidence in the presence of Jesus. They quickly fell into the leadership styles prevalent in the Roman empire. What was once a shared authority among a plurality of elders became centralized into individual bishops. The structure of the church took on the top-down forms of its surrounding culture. Leaders changed from being fellow servants to powerful potentates. People started referring to the seat where the bishop sat as his cathedra (Latin for “throne”). Command-and-control replaced leadership by indirect influence.

Yet, Christ’s promise remains; it is just as applicable today as it was in the first century. You can count on his presence as you represent him in whatever leadership role you have been given.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

Credits
Photo by Fr Angelico. Photo available at Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Image modified for size and space.

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